can we know if God is real?
This week's question comes from Shelah who writes, "A friend of mine recently asked how he can know that the God he serves is real. I tried to explain to him that it is more an issue of faith, but I feel I could've said more. Please share with me some Scriptures or wise counsel so I can get back with him."
Defending the faith has long been one of the tasks the Church has been charged with, both with those outside and inside Christianity. Since Judaism and her daughter faiths, Islam and Christianity, are all monotheistic, there has been a tendency to cling to the tenant that the God of Abraham is the only god in the universe and that all other religions are sincerely wrong. This attitude has given both Christianity and Islam the reputation of being arrogant-that only they are the true faiths.
So, how does a Christian know that the god they serve is the God?
To begin with, the Bible is pretty clear that God is not the only god of the universe. Indeed, the opposite is just the case. In Deuteronomy 6 we read God's command to be faithful to God alone: "Do not follow other gods, the gods of the people around you" (14). Although in later years the prophets would denounce the existence/power of other gods, even Jesus suggested that other gods existed in the forms of power and wealth. Indeed, when Paul preached on Mars Hill in Athens, he did not deny the existence of the Athenian gods, rather he preached the preeminence of the Christian God (Acts 17.22-31).
With even Scripture admitting the existence of other gods, the question then becomes, "How do we know our God is on the top of the hierarchy?"
Interestingly enough, the ancient Israelites weren't sure. In fact, the preeminence of God was a growing doctrine. The early Israelite faith believed that all the gods were tied to the peoples and their lands and that when you moved from place to place you needed to appease the gods that ruled over the people in their geographical vicinity. We read in Deuteronomy "When the Most High [El] gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided humankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. For the Lord's portion [Yahweh's portion] is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance. In a desert land he found him." (32.8-10a). Thus we see that the early understandings of God included a connection to the people and their land. However, as the Israelites relocated throughout the Middle-East, from Egypt to Babylon (modern-day Iraq), they realized their god was faithful to all those who followed "him," whether they were Israelites or not, and whether they were in Israel or not. And the Israelite people came to understand through the words of the prophets and through their own experience and relationship with God that their god was indeed the God of creation.
But how can we be sure today with no doubts that our God is the god on the top of the hierarchy?
We can't. Anything that can be proven is not a matter of faith, it is a matter of fact. Faith without doubt cannot exist, for faith and doubt are inextricably and paradoxically linked and cannot therefore be separated. The fact of God can be experienced. The fact of God can be demonstrated. But the fact of God cannot be empirically proven, for to do so would put an end to faith.
How do I know that the God I serve is preeminent? I can't. Except that I can claim the God I serve is preeminent in my own life and that I am sure that God is real. Why? Because I have seen the work of God in the hearts and lives of people around me. Because I have heard of the work of God in other cities and in other lands. Because I have experienced the power and presence of God in my own life. And finally, because no other gods and their prophets or scriptures make the same claims as my God.
Knowing that God is real is truly a matter of faith, and it will always remain a matter of faith. However, when it comes to sharing my faith with others, rather than attempting to destroy their faith system, I have found it best to lean on the words found in 1st Peter 3.15-"Be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope you have."